Leeds boss Bielsa reaps rewards of faith in youth
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa underlined his trust in youth after three academy products played key roles in getting to the top of the Championship on Christmas Day.
Today, they look to maintain their lead at the top, and equally importantly the four-point gap to third, when they host Blackburn Rovers buoyed by the stunning victory against Aston Villa.
So far this season, Bielsa has used 11 players aged 22 and under in the league and Jack Clarke and Leif Davis, both 18, and Jamie Shackleton, 19, played active roles in Sunday's come-from-behind 3-2 win at Villa Park. Sub Clarke launched the fightback with his first senior goal early in the second half after Villa had gone 2-0 up inside the first 17 minutes.
It is a sobering thought that the trio might have been playing elsewhere or lost to the game altogether had former Leeds owner Massimo Cellino gone through with a threat to scrap the academy completely to save money.
Bielsa is grateful that did not happen. In recent games, with several senior players injured, the youth production line has been vital for Leeds.
"We have received a lot of support from the academy," he said. "Clarke, Davis and Shackleton played at a level not common with young players.
"In the atmosphere at Villa Park you can feel who is playing a home game and who's playing an away game. Yet these players assimilated naturally into the game.
"Sometimes we think (we need to have) the 18 most experienced players but a lot of these young players who have been involved in the first team for many months and the experienced players helped them, accepted them and integrated them."
Elsewhere in the Championship, Sheffield United trained yesterday to ensure they are properly prepared for the visit of Championship promotion rivals Derby. Blades boss Chris Wilder sees it as just like any other week and had his players in on Christmas Day last year ahead of their St Stephen's Day fixture against Sunderland, with the move bringing a 3-0 victory.
"We'll try to make it fun and enjoyable, as we always do, but it's still going to be work," said Wilder.
Derby travel to south Yorkshire looking to extend a four-game unbeaten run, but wanting to return to winning ways after a couple of frustrating draws, while second-placed Norwich will look to remain hot on the heels of Leeds by extending their 11-game unbeaten league run against Nottingham Forest, who are just outside the play-off places.